“If you were the inventors of facebook, you would have invented Facebook”- Mark “Jesse Eisenberg” Zuckerberg

If you’re in the tech scene you have most likely seen the theatrical trailer for The Social Network, a movie with a semi-sensational edge on the founding of Facebook. The quote above really stuck out at me, and made me realize stealing an “idea” is a lot like stealing a snapshot. Even if someone steals your precious idea, they can’t steal the more important resources+skills that aren’t apparent in the context of that very small snapshot. Focus on the things unique to you that your competitors cannot steal:

They cannot steal your long term vision: Craigslist started in SF, Facebook at harvard, Google with only millions of pages, and Microsoft started as a basic interpreter. Everyone has a minimum viable market. The real question is: ” What is your long term vision?” Your long term vision and the path that gets you there cannot be stolen. When someone tries to steal your idea, they usually just steal the current market you’re going after. Could you have imagined ConnectU having a vision like that of the Facebook platform like Mark did? I doubt it.

They cannot steal your domain expertise: Truly great ideas are organic and usually come through your own experiences. Marc Benioff started salesforce after years of understanding the business software space by working at Oracle. Many other startups are born through founder’s frustrations with processes in areas they have domain expertise in. This deep understanding, especially in vertical and/or very specific engineering cases can only come through first hand experience.

They cannot steal your market failure driven pivots: The successful version of your product or eventually products will certainly look different than the idea someone stole, which was likely in the napkin phase at the time. After they steal your initial idea a fork in the road is formed by the pivots and failures that you go through. Someone who actually has the balls to “steal your idea” will be so blindly in love with it that they will most likely be closed to feedback which may alter it.

They cannot steal your talent (at this point): Do you think the Winkelvoss twins could have recruited the tech team that is in place at Facebook today? It takes a certain class of founder to attract top notch talent. Many think that they can just outsource the development work overseas or have someone write copy for $10 an hour to make things sell. That’s just foolish. If you surround yourself with insanely smart people you trust in the early days they cannot be stolen. If they can, then you picked the wrong people to be cofounders. Only when you’re beyond the idea stage does poaching from similar companies become a problem.

They cannot steal your analytical insights: The data you collect in your early days is so very important and for the most part so very unique to your exact concept. Track every click, every conversion, and every complaint from a user. Find out what is working and most importantly what isn’t working. People trying to steal your idea will think that pixels are there just because they look pretty in that place or that those exact words were there because they sounded smart. What they don’t know is that every pixel and every word in place has meaning through rigorous analytical insights.  Here’s a great post that scientifically explains a lot of the analytics and metrics you should be tracking.

They cannot steal your plans for generating revenue: You can break down most revenue models on the Internet down to their simplest form as either advertising based or charging for something. The real value comes from the details. Who are you charging? How much? What type of ads are you running? Why can you charge that rate? Why does it convert? The most someone can steal is your pricing page or your rate card. They can’t steal the endless testing, customer development, and insights behind those numbers. You should almost hope they play follow the leader here. When it comes time for your competitors to change these numbers, they won’t know what to do. You’ll be far far ahead before they realize what to do.

They cannot steal your passion for great service: Shoes. Fucking Shoes. No. Fucking great customer service. That’s what Zappos sells. If someone tried to steal the idea for Zappos over a decade ago they would have probably said: “Let’s set up an ecommerce shop for shoes. Those Zappos guys are making a killing. It’s a great idea!” What they would have missed is the passion for great customer service. Do you think someone trying to steal the idea for Wufoo would steal the concept to write thank you notes to customers? I doubt it.

They cannot steal your passion to make this idea a reality: People stealing ideas are often followers. They are a product of the passion and vision you have displayed to them. They may often get passionate about the idea for a few days, but that passion will surely fade almost instantly once they realize the difficulties that lie ahead. Since an idea is just a snapshot, they will often lose passion/energy once they find themselves lost as to what lies beyond that one snapshot.

They cannot steal your luck: Luck is a funny thing.  It’s a weird multiplier of success.  It just happens (or doesn’t happen) to startups.  It might be the difference between very little money or a whole lot of money.  When it hits, boy is it sweet.  You can’t steal luck.  It’s like a ghost that you can only faintly see in the photograph afterwards.  If someone tried to steal it, they would probably be grabbing at air.

Be open with your ideas (Chris Dixon gives good insight here).  I suggest sharing your ideas in a blog post to solicit feedback.  It worked well for me.  They will change by the time they become real businesses.   Don’t worry about someone stealing the idea, worry about the things they cannot steal.